By Nicole Gregory
Your toddler pokes his sister for the fourth time in 10 minutes, throws himself on the floor in a fit of rage when you turn off the television or deliberately pours milk on the new rug. Exasperated, you send your child to his room and administer a 10-minute “timeout.” While this swift action may feel right to you at the moment, experts say that when a time-out is used strictly as punishment, it is ineffective and can, in fact, backfire.
“Punishment is not helpful in shaping a toddler’s behavior,” says Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. “If the toddler didn’t have the skill to handle the situation in the first place, then punishment is not going to make him more competent.”
So before you banish your toddler to another room, take a minute to consider what he is feeling. “Maybe this kid is overwhelmed easily and he’s had too much stimulation. Another child took his toy and he doesn’t know yet how to deal with frustration,” says Claire Lerner, LCSW, a child development specialist with Zero To Three, a national nonprofit organization that promotes healthy development of toddlers and their families. “These are times for support and learning, when you can have a big impact on shaping your child’s development,” says Lerner.
What works, what doesn’t
What is a compassionate, effective timeout? It could be holding your tot in your lap, away from her sister she’s been poking, or in a chair in another room for a few minutes when she refuses to pick up her toys. Goldstein says “time-out” originates in psychological literature as “time out from reinforcement,” meaning removing the child from whatever is reinforcing the unwanted behavior. One mistake parents make with timeouts is to say “Okay, you’re free now” when the one or two minutes are up, says Goldstein.
Time-outs work best when you bring the child right back into the setting and guide her to negotiate it differently. “You could say, ‘I want you to help me pick up your blocks,’” Goldstein advises. “If she says ‘No!’ then calmly say, ‘Okay, we’re going to another time-out.’”
Goldstein also says that many parents expect behavior of tots that they’re incapable of. A toddler should not be expected to sit still through an hour-long dinner or to clean up an entire room of toys by himself. Another don’t: Don’t say to toddlers “Think about what you did wrong,” says Goldstein, because they are struggling to learn and may truly not know what they did. And don’t adhere to the mythical measure of one minute of time-out for each year of the child’s age.
“This is not based on science,” says Goldstein. He adds that a time-out needn’t last more than a few minutes. “We used very short time-outs with our daughter as a last resort,” says Eliza Porter, Los Angeles mother of 4-year-old Annie. “A time-out that lasted even for a minute was a big deal. It gave us both a chance to catch our breath.”
Sometimes toddlers just lose it. They’re overcome with anger, disappointment and frustration, and no amount of reasoning can get them to calm down. “In these situations, often a child just needs to be alone to calm down,” says Claire Lerner, who suggests creating a cozy corner in your home as a quiet, safe place where a toddler can feel calm and comforted. “You can say to your toddler, ‘Everybody needs a break sometimes. We’re going to make a place that’s safe when you’re losing it,’” says Lerner. “You know your own kid—put things in the corner that are soothing such as books, action fi gures, crayons and paper. Then you can say, ‘Come out when you’re ready.’”
When your child has calmed herself down or figured out how to adjust her behavior, let her know what a good job she did. “It’s a huge life skill for toddlers to learn how to soothe themselves or deal with frustration,” says Lerner. And give yourself a pat on the back for taking the time to help your child manage diffi cult situations and feelings—a skill that will serve her well in childhood and beyond.
When you need a time-out
When your own frustration as a parent builds to a crescendo, and your anger is out of proportion to your child’s behavior or you feel the temptation to use physical force against your child, then you need a time-out.
Tell your spouse to take over or call another mom or a babysitter to give you some time away from your kids. If you can’t get help from another adult, take a few deep breaths and tell your child, “I’m feeling really frustrated right now. I need a break.” If your child is 4 or older, then you can go into your bedroom for five to ten minutes.
But if your kids are younger, “simply sit in a chair, look at a magazine or otherwise calm yourself,” says Sam Goldstein. Claire Lerner adds, “It can be valuable to let your child see you lose it and regroup.” You’re demonstrating that when you get really upset and frustrated, you know how to calm yourself. It’s also helpful to let them know that you’re feeling better when your break is over.
Nicole Gregory is a Los Angeles writer/editor and mother of a 10-year-old boy.
Experts say punishment is not helpful in shaping a toddler’s behavior. So what’s a parent to do?